I never “sit down” to watch TV: but the bilingual show Giri/Haji has had me stuck to my seat

The BBC-Netflix drama doesn’t just divide itself between London and Tokyo, English and Japanese, but between genres.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Halfway through episode two of the BBC-Netflix drama Giri/Haji, I realised I was still sitting down. I suppose that shouldn’t be noteworthy, but I’m ashamed to admit that most of my TV “watching” is really more watching out of the corner of my eye: the backdrop to cleaning and scrolling and commuting and writing. I watched the entire first season of The Alienist while making a wedding cake, and it turns out it is perfectly possible to follow an episode of Silent Witness while washing up, with your back to the screen. (These are two very murderous examples; I do occasionally venture into shows where people’s organs remain inside their bodies.)

For this reason, subtitled programmes usually linger guiltily in the “you probably should…” recesses of my mind. The DVD box-set of the French crime drama Spiral gathered dust in my flat for two years before I finally returned it, untouched, to my dad. But January was an interminably long and bleak month, and so Giri/Haji stole on to my screen.

The TV usually only gets my full, seated attention thanks to the accountability of watching with my boyfriend (we take SAS: Who Dares Wins very seriously) or when it is forced on me by bed rest: the Great Tonsillitis of Christmas 2009 and a DVD of Bodies; a broken foot and a This Life binge. Watching Giri/Haji made me realise that in times of good health, subtitles have a similar effect. But while it was the show’s bilingual nature – half English, half Japanese – that made me sit down, it would be a disservice to say that’s all that held me there.

Giri/Haji – which roughly translates as “duty/shame” – begins in London, where the murder of Yakuza (the Japanese equivalent of the Mafia) boss Shin Endo’s nephew threatens to restart a gang war in Japan. Tokyo detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) leaves behind his surly teenage daughter Taki, his elderly parents and his papery marriage, and travels to England under the pretence of a forensics training course. Really, he is also there to search for his brother, Yakuza member Yuto (Yosuke Kubozuka), whom the family previously believed to be dead – only no body was ever found, and now a samurai sword known to be in Yuto’s possession has turned up in the back of, yes, Shin Endo’s nephew. It’s all very Cain and Abel.

The resulting tangle is highly stylised (slipping into black and white, animation and at one point what I can only describe as slow-motion interpretative ballet) and unlike anything else I’ve watched on the BBC. Giri/Haji doesn’t just divide itself between London and Tokyo, English and Japanese, but between genres. What at first feels like a familiar cop drama – a weary detective leaves his family on his day off to go back into work – soon spirals out into gangster-noir, with Tarantino-style, cartoonish violence: a gun battle in Soho, an amputated finger, a spray of bullets in a restaurant. 

Also swept into the narrative are Sarah (Kelly Macdonald), the disillusioned detective teaching Kenzo’s course, and outlandish, half-Japanese sex worker Rodney (Will Sharpe). Along with Kenzo and Taki, who further complicates matters when she runs away to London to join her dad, they form an unconventional family, bound together by complicity. Boundaries are blurred between Sarah and Kenzo, while his wife leaves him voicemails; Rodney and Taki forge an instinctive, wholesome bond – or as wholesome as anything can be when class-A drugs are involved. 

It’s offbeat and funny, too: doing Lost in Translation in reverse offers low-hanging fruit, and nothing gets past creator Joe Barton’s script. “In my day if a boy tried to feel up a girl she’d slap his face, not try and castrate him,” Kenzo says to Taki when she’s suspended from school for stabbing a boy’s leg with nail scissors. “Girls are different now,” she replies drily. Persuading Sarah to go on a date, Rodney brings a new meaning to tattoos everywhere: “Oh my god, Sarah. Carpe diem! Seize the dick!”

I’m not prepared to say I’ve changed my ways, but it turns out all my attention span needed was the pull of subtitles. In the end I sat, bewitched, through all eight hours of Giri/Haji. It’s well worth a read. 

Next week: Sarah Manavis

Pippa Bailey is the New Statesmans chief sub-editor. 

This article appears in the 07 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit